By Vera Wilson
One of the secrets to a healthy financial future is to develop strong money-savings habits now to be used over your lifetime. The key to real savings is understanding all aspects of your finances, using that knowledge to your advantage, and exercising some financial discipline.
Get a grip on your spending
There's an old self-help book titled If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You'll Probably End Up Somewhere Else(Thomas More Association, 1990). It's never more true than with your finances - therefore, a budget is a must. To begin, track your spending for a three-month period. This means analyzing your checking account, credit and debit cards, and even your pay stub for deductions like health insurance. Don't forget to include your miscellaneous cash outlays.
Once you get over the shock of how much you spent on going to the movies, closely examine all of your spending habits and determine whether they're in line with your short- and long-term goals. If you want a new car, how much do you need to set aside each month to make the payments? What area realistically can you take that money from? Numerous resources are available, such as Mint.com, to guide you in developing a meaningful budget.
Now it's time to put your budget into action. One tried-and-true method is the envelope system. Label an envelope for each budget category, and where practical, put cash in each envelope equal to your monthly budget. When it's gone, that's it - no reaching for the credit card! This visual approach can save users up to 15 percent.
A more tech-savvy approach would be to use a phone app, like EveryDollar, that automatically tracks your spending and allows you, with a quick glance at your phone, to see what's left in your budget before you make that sweater purchase.
Planning for spontaneity
Impulse buys are the bane of every budget's existence. The 48-hour rule will prevent you from sabotaging your budget, and it's simple: Wait 48 hours before you actually purchase a coveted item. Often, you'll find you've forgotten all about the coffeemaker you just had to have, or you've come to your senses and dodged some serious buyer's remorse.
But what about those times you just can't fight it? A budget has to be realistic to work, so to ensure you don't break it, go ahead and label one of your budget envelopes “splurge fund,” so, in theory, you're planning your spontaneity.
Regular checkups mean more money in your checking account
It's important to get in the habit of regularly reviewing your finances, some more often than others. For example, if you're consistently spending more money than planned on home maintenance, you need to either divert budgeted funds from somewhere else or maybe pick up that hammer yourself and pocket the savings. The important thing is to quickly adjust any changes in spending habits before they get out of hand or your best-laid plans will fail. Schedule weekly reviews of your household expenses until you feel you've gotten a handle on your new budget, then shoot for monthly reviews.
Just as important are annual reviews of financial contracts - insurance and tax obligations, as well as bank agreements. You don't want to miss an opportunity to save as your situation changes.
For instance, insurance agents don't always specifically mention all the discounts their company might offer, such as a good student discount, so do your necessary research to take advantage of offers for which you're currently eligible. As insurance goes up, a move to a larger deductible might be in order. Question the replacement value of your home, which usually automatically goes up each year.
Does the tax value of your property seem reasonable to you? Review for accuracy the details about your home, such as acreage and heated square footage (found on your local government's website), and report any discrepancies. Search car-selling websites; if your car's appraised value seems out of line, schedule a meeting with your tax assessor to show him the data and your car.
Credit card arrangements are notoriously tricky; one late payment substantially can raise your interest rate. Do you know your current rate? If you regularly incur interest, and it's higher than what you think you can get elsewhere, contact your company and tell them you're cutting up your card if they don't lower your rate. Have a high balance? Check out balance transfer options that offer no or low interest rates for a period of time.
Look at your bank statements - are you paying more in fees than you're earning in interest? If so, check out Internet banks for lower expenses.
The bottom line is, if you're not watching your bottom line, nobody else is, and it quickly can spiral downward. Adopting these easy money-saving habits will help you secure your financial future.